A couple of days ago I had a conversation with my daughter-in-law which was mostly about her son Max, (my grandson). Most conversations with her (and with my son) are about this particular child because he is a handful. He is very bright, very verbal, and (today) generally obsessed with street maps. (In fact, I just bought him a wall size one for his birthday -- it is what he asked me for.) He doesn’t do what he is told, he zones out, and he isn’t good with other kids because they usually don’t share his current obsession. They have worked hard to find a school that can handle him and, of course, they have had him diagnosed.
It is my daughter-in-law’s off hand comment to me during our conversation that is my subject here. She said that a lot of the kids she knows of his generation have various issues and the reason is probably environmental. I assume that it is true that where she lives many kids have been diagnosed with some kind of disorder. For all I know, the reason really is environmental. I don’t have much knowledge about how our current environment might be causing weird behavior disorders in kids.
But this is what I do know. Had ADHD been a diagnosis in the 50’s, I would have been diagnosed with it, and my mother, who believed in doctors, would have had me drugged. Since there was no such diagnosis in those days, my mother would just show up at school and say; “he’s bored, try giving something more interesting to do.” She once even suggested to my third grade teacher that I would be better off sweeping the floors rather than trying to put up with whatever they were teaching at that moment.
I also had a conversation with my daughter’s son this weekend. (It was his 9th birthday.) I asked him about school and he replied, as he usually does: “Boring.” I asked him what was boring now and he said they were learning about Indians again just like they did in the 2nd grade (now he is in the 4th) and he was tired of it. I suggested that he ask the teacher why it was ok for us to have murdered millions of them, as that would stimulate good discussion, but no one had ever mentioned to him what became of these Indians he is learning about.
I am writing about this because the New York Times published a phenomenally important article yesterday. One that everyone interested in education should read. Here is some of it:
A Natural Fix for A.D.H.D.
Recent neuroscience research shows that people with A.D.H.D. are actually hard-wired for novelty-seeking — a trait that had, until relatively recently, a distinct evolutionary advantage. Compared with the rest of us, they have sluggish and underfed brain reward circuits, so much of everyday life feels routine and understimulating. To compensate, they are drawn to new and exciting experiences and get famously impatient and restless with the regimented structure that characterizes our modern world. In short, people with A.D.H.D. may not have a disease, so much as a set of behavioral traits that don’t match the expectations of our contemporary culture.
From the standpoint of teachers, parents and the world at large, the problem with people with A.D.H.D. looks like a lack of focus and attention and impulsive behavior. But if you have the “illness,” the real problem is that, to your brain, the world that you live in essentially feels not very interesting.
One of my patients, a young woman in her early 20s, is prototypical. “I’ve been on Adderall for years to help me focus,” she told me at our first meeting. Before taking Adderall, she found sitting in lectures unendurable and would lose her concentration within minutes. Like many people with A.D.H.D., she hankered for exciting and varied experiences and also resorted to alcohol to relieve boredom. But when something was new and stimulating, she had laserlike focus. I knew that she loved painting and asked her how long she could maintain her interest in her art. “No problem. I can paint for hours at a stretch.”
Why are so many kids being diagnosed with problems these days? Here are three answers:
Drug companies have drugs they want to sell and they push these diagnoses. More illness -- more money for them.
Therapists have therapies they want to sell. More problem kids -- more therapies to sell.
And, of course, the last and biggest. It is very difficult to get a group of kids to want to hear about Indians, or pollution, or mathematics, or “science.” But the schools insist on teaching things that most kids aren’t interested in, and they are lots of kids in a class. The teacher can’t put up with all these individuals who want to do what they want to do and are not interested in what they want to teach. So kids need to learn to sit down and shut up. Milo is a compliant kid so, although he is bored, he does sit down and shut up. Max (and me) would never sit down and shut up when we are bored or have something more interesting that it excites us to talk about or do.
The school’s job is to excite kids about what is out there in the world and let them have a go at it. (Or that ought to be the school's job.) Instead, schools have taken on the job of babbling on about whatever the official (and out of date and irrelevant) curriculum happens to be. They have decided that kids who would rather be doing something else will not be allowed to do so.
Now this might have been the only possibility in a world of “mass education” and giant school buildings that look like prisons (not randomly). But today we have the internet, and mentors available online, and experiences that can be individualized.
Why don’t we encourage schools to adapt to kids rather than the other way around?
I always told my children (and now my grandchildren) that when you don’t understand why something is happening the answer is usually “money.”
How is the answer money here?
Drug companies are making a lot of money on ADHD drugs. Doctors make money on prescribing these drugs. Testing companies are making a lot of money on making sure kids sit down, shut up, and take the test.
The goal seems to be a drugged kid who has memorized the quadratic formula and is having no fun at all.